Welcome to an exclusive excerpt of THE BARON NEXT DOOR! I hope you enjoy Charity and Hugh's less than civil first meeting :)
Hell and damnation, was he to have no peace at all?
Hugh Danby, the new and exceedingly reluctant Baron Cadgwith, pressed the heels of his hands into his eye sockets, pushing back against the fresh pounding the godforsaken noise next door had reawakened.
“Go to Bath,” his sister-in-law had said. “It’s practically deserted in the summer. Think of the peace and quiet you’ll have.”
Bloody hogwash. This torture was about as far from peace as one could get. Not that he blamed Felicity; clearly the news of the first annual Summer Serenade in Somerset festival hadn’t made it to their tiny little corner of England when she made her seemingly useful suggestion. Still, he’d love to get his hands on the person who thought it was a good idea to organize the damn thing.
He tugged the pillow from the empty spot beside him and crammed it over his head, trying to muffle the jaunty pianoforte music filtering through the shared wall of his bedchamber. The notes were high and fast, like a foal prancing in a springtime meadow. Or more aptly, a foal prancing on his eardrums.
There was no hope for it. There would be no more sleep for him now.
Tossing aside the useless pillow, he rolled to his side, bracing himself for the wave of nausea that always greeted him on mornings like this. Ah, there it was. He gritted his teeth until it passed, then dragged himself up into a sitting position and glanced about the room.
The curtains were closed tight, but the late morning sunlight still forced its way around the edges, causing a white-hot seam that seemed to burn straight through his retinas. He squinted and looked away, focusing instead on the dark burgundy and brown Aubusson rug on the floor. His clothes were still scattered in a trail leading to the bed, and several empty glasses lined his nightstand.
Ah, thank God—not all were empty.
He reached for the one still holding a good finger of liquid and brought it to his nose. Brandy. With a shrug, he drained the glass, squeezing his eyes against the burn.
Still the music continued, if one could call it that. Must the blasted pianoforte player have such a love affair with the brain-cracking high notes? Though he’d yet to meet the neighbors who occupied the adjoining townhouse, he knew without question she was a female. No self-respecting male would have the time, inclination, or enthusiasm to play such musical drivel.
Setting the tumbler back down on the nightstand, he scrubbed both hands over his face, willing the alcohol to deaden the pounding in his brain. The notes grew louder and faster, rising to a crescendo that could surely be heard all the way home in Cadgwith, some two hundred miles away.
And then . . . blessed silence.
He closed his eyes and breathed out a long breath. The hush settled over him like a balm, quieting the ache and lowering his blood pressure. Thank God. He’d rather walk barefoot through glass than—
The music roared back to life, pounding the nails back into his skull with the relentlessness of waves pounding the beach at high tide. Damn it all to hell. Grimacing, he tossed aside the counterpane and came to his feet, ignoring the violent protest of his head. Reaching for his clothes, he yanked them on with enough force to rip the seams, had they been of any lesser quality.
It was bloody well time he met his neighbors.
Freedom in D Minor.
Charity Effington grinned at the words she had scrawled at the top of the rumbled foolscap, above the torrent of hastily drawn notes that danced up and down the static five-lined staff.
The title could not be more perfect.
Sighing with contentment, she set down her pencil on the burled oak surface of her pianoforte and stretched. Whenever she had days like this, when the music seemed to pour from her soul like water from an upturned pitcher, her shoulders and back inevitably paid the price.
She unfurled her fingers, reaching toward the unlit chandelier that hung above her. The room was almost too warm, with sunlight pouring through the sheers that covered the wide windows facing the private gardens behind the house, but she didn’t mind. She’d much rather be here in the stifling heat than up north with her parents and their stifling expectations.
And Grandmama couldn’t have chosen a more perfect townhouse to rent. With soaring ceilings, airy rooms, generous windows lining both the front and back—not to mention the gorgeous pianoforte she now sat at—it was a wonderful little musical retreat.
Exactly what Charity needed after the awfulness of the last Season.
Dropping her hands to the keys once more, she closed her eyes and purged all thoughts of that particular topic from her mind. It was never good for creativity to focus on stressful topics. Exhaling, she stretched her fingers over the cool ivory keys, finding her way by touch.
Bliss. The pianoforte was perfectly tuned, the notes floating through the air like wisps of steam curling from the Baths. Light and airy, the music reflected the joy filling her every pore. Freedom.
Free from Mama and her relentless matchmaking. Free from the gossip that seemed to follow her like a fog. Free from all the strict rules every young lady must abide by during the Season.
The notes rose higher as her right hand swept up the scale, tapping the keys with the quickness of a flitting hummingbird. Her left hand provided counterbalance with low, smooth notes that anchored the song.
A sudden noise from the doorway startled her from her trance, abruptly stopping the flow of music and engulfing the room in an echoing silence. Jeffers, Grandmama’s ancient butler, stood in the doorway, his stooped shoulders oddly rigid.
“I do beg your pardon, Miss Effington. Lady Effington requests your presence in the drawing room.”
Now? Just when she was truly finding her stride? But Charity wasn’t about to make the woman wait—not after she had singlehandedly saved Charity from a summer of tedium in Durham with her disgruntled parents. “Thank you Jeffers,” she said, coming to her feet.
She headed down the stairs, humming the beginning of her new creation. Her steps were in time with the music in her mind, which had her moving light and fast on her feet. The townhouse was medium sized, with more than enough room for the two of them and the handful of servants Grandmama had brought, so it only took her a minute to reach the spacious drawing from the music room.
Breezing through the doorway with a ready smile on her face, Charity came up short when the person before her was most definitely not her four-foot-eleven silver-haired grandmother.
She only just managed to contain her squeak of surprise at the sight of the tall, lanky man standing in the middle of the room, his dark rumbled clothes in stark contrast to the cheery soft blues and golds of the immaculate drawing room. She swallowed, working to keep her expression passive as her mind raced to figure out who on earth the man was.
Charity had never seen him before, of that she was absolutely sure. It would be impossible to forget the distinctive scars crisscrossing his left temple and disappearing into his dark blonde hair. One of the puckered, white lines cut through his eyebrow, dividing it neatly in half before ending perilously close to one of his vividly green—and terribly bloodshot—eyes.
He was watching her unflinchingly, accepting her inspection. Or perhaps he was simply indifferent to it. It was . . . disconcerting.
“There you are,” Grandmama said, snapping Charity’s attention away from the stranger. Sitting primly at her usual spot on the overstuffed sofa centered in the room, her grandmother offered Charity a soft smile. “Charity, Lord Cadgwith has kindly come over to introduce himself. He is to be our neighbor for the summer.”
Kindly? Charity couldn’t help her raised eyebrow. The man had come over without invitation or introduction and Grandmama had actually allowed it?
Correctly interpreting Charity’s reaction, the older woman chuckled, clasping her hands over the black fabric of her skirts. “Yes, I realize we are not strictly adhering to the rules, but it is summer, is it not? Exceptions can be made, especially when the good baron overheard your playing and so wished to meet the musician.” Her gray eyes sparkled as she smiled at the man.
It was all Charity could do not to gape at the woman. Yes, no one was more proud of Charity’s playing than her grandmother, but this was beyond the pale. Good gracious, if Mama and Papa knew how much Grandmama’s formally strict nature had been changed by her extended illness, they never would have allowed Charity to accompany her to Bath without them.
The baron bowed, the movement crisp despite his slightly disheveled appearance. “A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Miss Effington,” he said, his voice low and a little raspy, like the low register of a flute.
Despite the perfectly proper greeting, something about him seemed a little untamed. Must be the scars, the origin of which she couldn’t help but wonder about. War wounds? Carriage accident? A duel? Setting aside her curiosity, she arranged her lips in a polite smile. “And you as well, Lord Cadgwith. Are you here for the festival?”
“Please don’t mumble my dear,” Grandmama cut in, her whispered reprimand loud and clear. Charity cringed—the older woman insisted that her hearing was fine, and that any problem in understanding laid in the enunciation of those around her.
“Yes, ma’am,” she responded in elevated, carefully pronounced tones. “Lord Cadgwith, are you here for the festival?” Heat stole up her cheeks, despite her effort to keep the blush at bay. She never liked standing out—when away from her pianoforte, of course—and practically shouting in the presence of their neighbor was beyond awkward. One would think she’d have come to terms with the easy blushes her ginger hair and pale, freckled skin lent itself to, but no—knowing her cheeks were warming only made her blush that much more violently.
It certainly didn’t help that the man was by far the most attractive male to ever stand in her drawing room, scars or no. She swallowed against the unexpected rush of butterflies that flitted through her.
For his part, Lord Cadgwith did not look amused. “No, actually. I had no knowledge of the event until my arrival.” He made the effort to speak in a way Grandmama would hear, his dark, deep voice carrying easily through the room. A man used to being heard, she’d guess. A military man, perhaps?
“Well, what a happy surprise it must have been when you arrived,” her grandmother said, smiling easily. “Charity is planning to audition for the Tuesday Evening Musicale series later this afternoon. There are a limited number of slots, but I have no doubt our Charity will earn a place.”
And . . . more blushing. Charity gritted her teeth as she smiled demurely at her grandmother. Music was the one thing for which Charity had no need for false modesty, but sharing her plans with the virtual stranger standing in their drawing room felt oddly invasive. “I’m sure Lord Cadgwith isn’t interested in my playing, Grandmama.”
“On the contrary,” he said, his voice rough but carrying. “It is, after all, your music that prompted me to visit in the first place.”
Her mouth fell open in a little, “Oh,” of surprise before she got her wits about her and snapped it shut. Still, pleasure, warm and fizzy, poured through her. Her music had called this incredibly handsome man to her? Pride mingled with the pleasure, bringing an irrepressible grin to her lips. Not her looks (such as they were), not her father’s station, not curiosity from the gossip. No, he had sought her out because her playing touched him.
Grandmama beamed, her shrewd gaze flitting back and forth between them. “Well, I do hope you’ll stay for tea, my lord.”
His smile was oddly sharp. “Unfortunately I must be off. I just wanted to introduce myself after being serenaded this morning. Lady Effington, thank you for your indulgence for my whim.”
She nodded as regally as the queen, pleasure clear in the pink tinge of the normally papery white skin of her cheeks. He turned to face Charity, his green eyes meeting hers levelly. “Miss Effington,” he said, lowering his voice to a much more intimate tone as he bent his head in acknowledgment. “Do please have a care for your captive audience in the adjoining townhouses, and keep the infernal racket to a minimum.”
Lost in the vivid dark green of his eyes, it took a moment for his words to sink in. She blinked several times in quick succession, trying to make sense of his gentle tone and bitingly rude words. He couldn’t possibly have just said . . . . “I beg your pardon?”
“Pardon granted. Good day, Miss Effington.”
And just like that, the baron turned on his heel and strode from the room. It was then that she caught the fleeting hint of spirits in his wake, faint but unmistakable. A few seconds later, the sound of the front door opening and closing reached her burning ears. Of all the insufferable, boorish, rude—
“My goodness, but he was a delightful young man.” Grandmama’s sweet voice broke through Charity’s fury, just before she was about to explode. The older women looked so happy, so utterly pleased with the encounter, Charity forced herself to bite her tongue. If wouldn’t do to upset her—not after she was only just now recovering from her illness. The currish baron wasn’t worth the strife it would cause.
Forcing a brittle smile to her lips, she nodded. “Mmhmm. And you know what? I think I’ll go play an extra enthusiastic composition just for him.”
With that, she marched from the room, directly back to her pianoforte bench. The baron could have been pleasant. He could have kindly asked her to play more quietly, or perhaps less frequently. But no, he chose to go about it in the most uncivilized, humiliating way possible. It was his decision to throw down the gauntlet as though they were enemies instead of neighbors.
She plopped down on her bench with a complete lack of elegance and paused only long enough to lace her hands together and stretch out her muscles. Then she spread her fingers out over the keys and smiled.
This, Lord Cadgwith, means war.